part two: paris to the moon

Every year, Paris convenes the “Grand Prix de la Baguette de Tradition Française de la Ville de Paris.” In other words, the “Best Baguette in Paris” competition. Isn’t that marvelous? Although legend would hold otherwise, it is possible to get bad bread in Paris, and this was even truer in the 1980s, when traditional-bread making had begun to diminish in favor of *shudder* la machine. So seventeen years ago, this annual contest was begun to award the city’s finest traditional loaf. The winning boulangerie provides bread for the Presidential Palace for the year.

Obviously, we visited the top two.

The runner-up boulanger this year was Daniel Pouphary of La Parisienne, an adorable, brightly violet bakery on rue Monge in the fifth. Their baguette was wonderful, but what I remember most is their croissants. Most bakeries make one, perhaps two types of croissants: au beurre, which you should get; and ordinaire, which, being made with margarine, you should not. (What Americans call a “chocolate croissant” is actually not crescent-shaped, and rightfully called a “pain au chocolat.) Anyway, La Parisienne offers an exciting variety of croissant fillings, and we both gravitated to the chocolat lait noisette — milk chocolate hazelnut. A Nutella croissant!? Actually, no; more milk chocolate filling with little chopped up hazelnuts, but still delicious.

The following morning, we trudged all the way up to Montmartre for the #1 baguette: baker Djibril Bodian at Le Grenier à Pain Abbesses. It was wonderful. A crunchy, golden-brown, nutty exterior and soft, delicately sour-ish interior. We ate half the loaf at a nearby bench, and I carried the rest in my bag all day. (Back at the apartment that night, we toasted the rest, jimmied open the can of fois gras my aunt had given us, and ate all of both: incidentally, this is an excellent way to eat the best baguette in Paris.)

The Montmartre of myth and the movie “Amélie” is famous for its artisans who, I’m sorry to say, are more tourist hawks than anything else — that and the big white church. We saw both, but I think we had more fun walking down the residential streets and staircases, all the way to the Metro and across the river to the Left Bank.

Listen, the seventh has a reputation for being the hoighty-toighty snob of the arrondissement family, and it’s not wildly unjustified. But we had the loveliest, most impromptu and inexpensive lunch on a terrace cafe about two blocks from the Musee d’Orsay, and the point is: don’t write off this place as the exclusive domain of ladies who lunch in Dior. Because it ain’t! Then we went to the Orsay, and since I should have told Billy this first thing, let me say it loudly here: THE MUSEUM IS AN OLD TRAIN STATION. It’s cool inside. Photos aren’t allowed, so you’ll just have to trust me.

The Orsay houses France’s great Impressionist collection. Monet, Renoir, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cassatt, Morisot, Degas, Pissaro. If you’ve seen it in a book, it’s probably here. Including, most excitingly, Manet’s “Olympia,” which is a REVOLUTIONARY painting that I LOVE. Adorably, there was a museum guide leading a group of French six-year-olds in a discussion of it. “This painting caused quite a scandal when it was shown. Can you guess why?” “Because there’s a black cat in it?” one little boy ventures. Too much! I’m not big on the “French children are more cultured than American children” paradigm, but seriously . . .

We also visited the Louvre, but bypassed the beautiful-but-touristy trifeca of the Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, and Venus de Milo. The Louvre has everything — all paintings, sculptures, art objects, everything — until about 1800, including treasures from other civilizations like the Code of Hammurabi and dozens of Egyptian mummies. I was also quite taken with the Egyptian sculptures of nursing kittens, no more than four inches long. I know they worshipped cats, but that is just beyond. The Pompidou, which we also visited, houses “modern and contemporary” art, which here means a heavy emphasis on post-WW2 art. We loved their quirky, multimedia exhibition “Dreamlands,” which explores the world fairs, theme parks, and international exhibitions that influenced how cities like New York, Las Vegas, and Paris are used and imagined.

Finally — because this is getting really, really too long, I will just mention that the one Saturday we were in Paris happened to be La nuit des musées. We were walking back from the uber-cool Prescription Cocktail Club when we heard a loud clanging coming from across the street. We walked past the guards into an enormous courtyard (pictured above, right), where clusters of people had loosely lined up behind four stands. When we got our turn, we found a steering wheel that controlled the downward descent of a large, digital coin projected onto the courtyard wall. And when the coin fell to the bottom, it clanked and blasted light. So this is what the Paris mint does for fun at midnight! I hope whenever you (nebulous you!) visit Paris, it is an equally surprising, magical, and lovely time.


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